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Roofer working on a house in high temperatures earlier this year. DPA/PA Images
Climate Change

Houses are built to keep heat in and that's a problem during heatwaves, especially in cities

Heatwaves will become more frequent and intense as climate change worsens.

AS TEMPERATURES SOAR over the coming days in heatwave conditions, closing blinds or curtains in times of direct sunlight are among the actions householders can take to deal with the heat while indoors. 

A Status Yellow high temperature warning will be in place across the country from 12pm today until 6am on Sunday. Met Éireann said temperatures will reach highs of 27 to 29 degrees Celsius. 

Global warming has caused an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events like heatwaves, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said. 

Irish buildings and homes are generally built to hold in heat rather than stay well ventilated and cool in the summer, as is the case in hotter climates. 

Professor of planning at University College Dublin Mark Scott said there should be a renewed focus to adapt buildings to the warming effects of climate change alongside the focus on energy-efficiency. 

Reports from the UN’s IPCC have highlighted that countries need to focus on both reducing emissions and also adapting to the impacts of climate change already being experienced by millions across the world. 

“Most effort around building regulation and around planning are focused on energy efficient and climate mitigation and I think there’s been less thought put into adapting to future risk from climate change,” Professor Scott told The Journal.

What has been put into thinking has mostly been around flood risk rather than looking at heat stress.

“We tend to build our buildings quite tightly to be energy efficient, but then we don’t have as much ventilation as maybe we should have to adapt to future heat stress risks.”

He said this risk of heat stress is going to be faced more in years to come, particularly in cities, so “we need to deal with this now rather than wait for the future until the risks get much greater”. 

Flooding and sea level rise are the biggest climate impacts Ireland will experience. However, increasing temperatures and more frequent and intense heatwaves are an issue both now and increasingly into the future. 

Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University John Sweeney told The Journal earlier this year: “We won’t have the really high mortality for heat waves that we expect in southern Europe, but we will notice an increase in summer heatwave mortality.”

Prof Scott said many homes in the countryside might be suited enough to deal with slightly higher temperatures. 

But cities are hotter than rural areas due to the urban heat island effect wherein cities have an abundance of impervious surfaces like roads and buildings to reflect heat.

High heat can be particularly challenging in city apartments, Professor Scott said. 

When windows are on both sides of an apartment or different sides of a house, you can “cross ventilate the apartment to get a breeze going through”. 

But single-aspect apartments – those with windows facing only in one direction – can get very warm and be difficult to cool down. 

Closing the windows and blinds/curtains in rooms getting intense sunlight at different times of the day will help to keep temperatures down, Prof Scott said. 

“If you’re in a single aspect, maybe all your windows in your apartment are south-facing, you’re not going to be able to get that cross-ventilation and you also get a lot of solar gain during the day as well.

“If there’s a problem with windows if they don’t open fully, that should be something to discuss with the building owners or the landlord because those windows that only open by a few centimetres don’t really perform very well,” he added. 

Prof Scott authored a 2019 EPA research report on built environment climate resilience and adaptation. 

This said that climate change risks are a “clear challenge for Ireland’s built environment” with a potential to cause “enormous damage” to housing and other infrastructure. 

This damage will have significant financial costs and pose risks to health and wellbeing, the report stressed. 

Changing cities

Outside the home, other measures can be taken to reduce heat stress in cities and urban areas in particular. 

Having more trees, green spaces and shaded areas in cities can help people cope with the high heat. This is important considering Ireland’s population is ageing and older people are more vulnerable to heat stress. 

Prof Scott emphasised the need to “mainstream adaptation into our built environment”.

Short-term solutions such as utilising fans and air conditioning units are “an example of maladaptation”, Prof Scott said. 

On 19 July, amidst further high summer temperatures, Currys said there was a 767% week-on-week increase in the sale of fans and air coolers. The company issued a statement yesterday saying shops are “fully stocked” with fans and air coolers.  

“We take these short-term actions but they actually will create more energy demand and cost the energy bills as we plug in an air-con unit, so we’re actually producing more carbon if we do those things,” Prof Scott said. 

“I know people do need to think about how they use their own buildings so when they open the windows, how they ventilate, closing the blinds and curtains during the day if you’re south facing.

There are some short-term things and I completely understand people will maybe want to use air-con but it is not a sustainable solution.

Other infrastructure changes implemented in other countries include painting buildings and rooftops white to reflect some of the heat infiltrating the building, putting heavy shades over windows and having green spaces on rooftops. 

Prof Scott said there needs to be more moves forward to “plan and design for future risks today”. 

“It’s more costly to adapt in the future than trying to deal with the things we’re building at the moment and to mainstream adaptation actions into building and design,” he said. 

A report from the IPCC made clear that climate change is already causing severe and widespread disruption around the world.  

It stressed that the dangerous impacts of climate change can be reduced by adapting and acting now to prevent future harm.

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